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Taxes


There’s some good news for American taxpayers this year. First of all, it was recently announced that President Obama would not seek a reduction in tax benefits for those who invest in 529 plans for saving for their kids’ education. Even though it is the wealthy who benefit from this tax break, it is still represents a potential for middle class tax savings, and a reduction in benefit was a bad idea.

401(k) plans are the primary retirement savings vehicle for the middle class, particularly as more employers enroll new employees automatically in the plans. And for those who have the ability to maximize their contribution each year, the new calendar year offers an additional opportunity.

In 2014, the IRS did not adjust the maximum contribution from the previous year. But this year, the maximum contribution to retirement accounts, which include 401(k) accounts, 403(b) accounts, most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans, will be $18,000, up $500 from $17,500.

Savers and investors aged 50 or older can take advantage of a catch-up contribution, effectively increasing the limit for those approaching traditional retirement age. In 2015, taxpayers who meet this age-based criterion can contribute an additional $6,000 above the regular maximum of $18,000. As a result, if you are 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $24,000 into these tax-advantaged accounts. That’s up from a total of $23,000 in 2014.

The total contribution limit, including employer contributions, has increased from $52,000 to $53,000.

The benefits of a 401(k) plan are designed to be directed primarily at people who most need an incentive to save for retirement. This may help contain the tax benefits within the middle class. The government does this by applying a maximum level of compensation to which matching benefits apply. In 2015, only the first $265,000 in an employee’s compensation over the course of 2015 may be applied to the company’s matching formula. That income limit has grown from $260,000 in 2014. That’s a sufficiently high maximum and should cover more than just the middle class.

To illustrate, if a company matches an employee’s contributions at a rate of 50% up to a limit of 5% the salary, an employee with a $100,000 salary deferring $15,000 will receive at most a $5,000 matching contribution (5% of the full $100,000 salary). If an employee at the same company ears $400,000 in compensation throughout the year, deferring $15,000, the matching contribution will be $13,250 (5% of the $265,000 maximum compensation, not $20,000). There are additional rules in place that require a company to balance benefits between highly compensated employees (those earning $120,000 or more) and all others.

In 2013, new regulations required 401(k) plan administers to explicitly state in quarterly statements how much investors are paying in fees. Previously, this information was not easy to discover. While you could (and should) look at the various prospectuses in search of management expenses fees or expense ratios, expressed as a percentage of assets, there were at least two obstacles:

  • The expense ratios force you to do your own calculations to determine how much money you’re spending in fees.
  • Not all fees are included in expense ratios. Some funds, like annuity-based mutual funds, don’t have expense ratios but certainly have fees.

To maximize your 401(k) contribution in 2015, spread the $18,000 across the number of paychecks you plan to receive throughout the year. That’s a contribution of $1,500 each month, $750 twice a month, $692 every two weeks, or $346 a week for those age 49 or younger. The calculation for those over 50 who want to max the contribution are $2,000 per month, $1,000 twice a month, $923 every two weeks, or $461 a week.

If your contributions are recorded in the form of percentages, don’t forget to change your contribution to take into account raises and bonuses. If you are expecting your company to match your contributions at some level, if you reach your 401(k) contribution limit before your last paycheck, you may miss out on free money.

Here’s a quick overview of my experience with 401(k) accounts over the past few years, over which time I was employed by a large company in the financial sector, I left that job to work for myself full-time, I sold a business and collected proceeds as income for a few years, and am now back to earning only self-employment income.

Last year, I had the option to contribute part of my self-employment income into an Individual 401(k) plans or a SEP IRA, but I did not do so. Theoretically, I can still choose to invest in a SEP IRA for 2014, so as I prepare my tax return, I’ll determine whether this will be beneficial or not.

In 2013, I was purely self-employed, and with still receiving income as a result of the sale of an asset with installation payments, I won’t qualify for a tax-advantaged retirement plan.

In 2012, I was for about half the year an employee of a company, during which time I faithfully contributed a portion of my income to a 401(k). For the remainder of the year, I have been and will continue to operate this web site as a consultant for that company, and I have not been contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan during that time. Assuming no financial tragedies and modest desires, my retirement needs are met, though I’m not sure what I want my retirement to look like.

In 2011, I worked fully for myself. Without an employer, I had no access to a regular 401(k), but I did initiate an Individual 401(k), which follows the same rules. By the end of the year, I expect to have maximized the employee portion of my 401(k) contributions at $16,500 with extra invested for the employer portion.

My 2010 contributions fell short from the maximum by about $700, and a portion of that is due to leaving the company in the middle of December. I received the full company match, a 100% match on the first 4% of my salary that was contributed to the plan, in every pay period.

In 2009, I contributed the maximum $16,500, but I didn’t plan for an extra paycheck at the end of the year, so that last paycheck did not include a contribution to my 401(k). As a result my imperfect calculation, I missed out on a portion of my employer’s matching contribution. Some employers match after taking all contributions for the year into account, but mine contributes on a pay period basis. Any pay period that I did not contribute to my 401(k), the company did not match.

In 2008, I missed the full contribution amount by $1,000. That year, I made several changes to my contribution rate and lost track of what my rate needed to be in order to maximize my contribution.

The following table illustrates the change in 401(k) contribution limits over the past several years.

Year 401(k)
Maximum
Catch-Up
Contribution
Maximum
Allocation
2015 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2014 $17,500 $5,500 $52,000
2013 $17,500 $5,500 $51,000
2012 $17,000 $5,500 $50,000
2011 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2010 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2009 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2008 $15,500 $5,000 $46,000

Photo: urban_data

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With the new year, every dollar you earn in the United States, whether the money comes from working or from your investments, is subject to being taxed by the federal government at a level higher than last year. Recently, the IRS announced the tax rates for 2015, and while the rates are the same as last year, the income brackets have increased due to the government’s application of inflation.

Just by looking at the numbers, more of your income will be taxed at lower rates, but as the cost of living gets more expensive every year, that offset doesn’t mean much. Earning more money also means paying more taxes — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to earn more money. It’s more preferable than earning less money. As I’ve been reassured over the years of owning a successful business, owing more tax means you’re doing something right.

The tax brackets presented herein apply to income you earn in 2015. You may be paying estimated 2015 income taxes throughout this year, and if you are, these are the rates to use for your calculations, but the majority of readers need to worry about this table next year when completing the 2015 income tax return. For the 2014 tax returns due April 15, 2015, use these 2014 federal income tax brackets and marginal rates.

What are marginal rates?

Every year, I touch on this concept, because I found it a little confusing when I first began earning money and so much of the public doesn’t understand this. There’s a big misconception about taxes. People are afraid to earn more if it means they’re going to be “bumped into the next tax bracket.” It is not true that being in a higher tax bracket will cause all of your income to be taxed at a higher rate. The only income tax at the highest rate is the income you earn above and beyond the lower threshold for that rate.

Make sure that sinks in. You will always owe the lowest tax rate, 10 percent, on your first $9,225 of earned income if you file as a single individual (not filing jointly). You could be a CEO earning $5 million this year, but even still, your first $9,225 is taxed at 10 percent. That’s how the brackets work.

So if your total taxable income is $9,000, you owe 10 percent of that, or $900. In this case, your marginal tax rate, 10 percent, is exactly the same as your effective tax rate. You get your effective tax rate by dividing the amount of total tax you owe over your total income. This is what Warren Buffett has famously referred to when explaining how his secretary pays more tax than he does. Buffett earns a lot of income from investments which are taxed at a lower rate than earned income, and that smaller percentage affects the average — the effective tax rate for all his income.

One more thing to keep in mind is that if you are employed and your employer takes tax payments from your paycheck automatically, you pay your 2015 tax bill throughout the year. The total tax you owe when you file your tax return takes that into account. If your total tax bill is less than what you’ve paid to the federal government throughout the year, you’ll get a refund. If you haven’t covered your entire bill through paycheck withholding, you owe the government. There is always a lot of confusion about this, particularly when those in charge of policy “lower taxes.” (If taxes are supposed to be lower, why did I owe money this year after receiving a refund last year?)

The 2015 federal income marginal tax rates and brackets.

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Anyone who likes getting a look at their future tax expenses might be interested in seeing what next year’s tax brackets and tax rates will be. The IRS has now announced the official rates and brackets for 2014, although the numbers have been predicted for months because the IRS uses a simple process of inflation and somewhat round numbers to determine the brackets. Congress isn’t expected to make any changes to the tax laws this year, unlike the last several years when the question to continue Bush-era tax breaks needed to be addressed every year.

Keep in mind that the 2014 federal income tax brackets don’t matter to most people until they file their 2014 income tax returns in early 2015. That’s a long way off. But for those who pay estimated taxes for 2014 income throughout the year, the information doesn’t hurt. Chances are you’re getting ready to settle your 2013 income taxes, which will be due April 15, 2014. In that case, the rates and brackets you want to review are the 2013 rates and brackets. If you want to see how your income earned in 2015 is being taxed, view these tax brackets and marginal rates for 2015.

Before getting to the numbers, keep in mind what marginal rates are. Your marginal rate is what you pay on your last dollar of income earned. If, for example, you will earn $50,000 in 2014, your marginal rate will be 25%. That does not mean you pay 25% on all of your income.

In fact, there is a strongly-held belief that the tax code penalizes people for earning more. I’ve heard people expressing disappointment with receiving a bonus because it might push them into the next tax bracket. Yes, as you earn more money, you’ll owe more income tax (in general), but when you’re in a higher tax bracket, it doesn’t affect the tax you owe on income below that new bracket’s threshold. There’s no big jump — the higher tax rate applies only to the income you earn above the top bracket’s baseline.

(Employers have a funny way of withholding taxes on your bonus payment, but to the IRS, and in the end when you finally settle your tax bill, a dollar is a dollar whether it was earned as salary or bonus.)

There’s one instance when it does make sense to be concerned about receiving more income — when that income comes in the form of an asset that’s not very liquid. Here’s an example: In the rare circumstance you win a new car in a contest or sweepstakes, the value of that car must be treated as income. If you win a $60,000 car, you’re going to have to come up with more cash to pay taxes on that $60,000. This is one of the reasons many who end up winning these kinds of contests end up selling the prize.

The 2014 federal income tax brackets and marginal rates.

The federal income tax brackets and marginal rates have now been officially announced by the IRS. These were the rates predicted by Wolters Kluwer, CCH several months ago, based on the rate of inflation the IRS announced it would use in September. The Tax Foundation, a non-partisan tax research group based in Washington, D.C., has also shared the official information.

Rate Single Filers Married Joint Filers Head of Household Filers
10% $0 to $9,075 $0 to $18,150 $0 to $12,950
15% $9,075 to $36,900 $18,150 to $73,800 $12,950 to $49,400
25% $36,900 to $89,350 $73,800 to $148,850 $49,400 to $127,550
28% $89,350 to $186,350 $148,850 to $226,850 $127,550 to $206,600
33% $186,350 to $405,100 $226,850 to $405,100 $206,600 to $405,100
35% $405,100 to $406,750 $405,100 to $457,600 $405,100 to $432,200
39.6% $406,750 and up $457,600 and up $432,200 and up

Determining your effective tax rate.

The table above lists marginal tax rates. What might be more interesting to calculate is your effective tax rate. For example, if you’re single, you earn $100,000 in taxable income in 2014, your effective tax rate — how much tax you end up paying as a percentage of your income — will likely be much lower than the marginal tax rate of 28%. It could be half of that. After taking out the standard deduction for your income, which in 2014 will be $6,200, leaves you with $93,800 in taxable income, although there might be other deductions that apply to you.

With $93,800 in income after the standard deduction, you would owe 10% of $9,075, 15% of $27,825 (the total income covered in the second tax bracket), 25% of $52,450, and 28% of $4,450 (the fourth tax bracket up to your taxable income). That calculation results in $19,439 in federal income tax — an effective tax rate of 19.4% based on the total income of $100,000. That amount could be further reduced by any tax credits for which you might qualify. Your effective tax rate would be considered lower if you’ve had other reductions to your gross income, like 401(k) contributions.

The new standard deductions and personal exemption.

As inflation effects the tax brackets, it also affects the standard deduction amounts. I mentioned above that the standard deduction for single files will be $6,200 in 2014, an increase of $100. For married taxpayers filing jointly, the standard deduction will be $12,400, an increase of $200. For heads of household, the amount of the standard deduction will increase $150 to $9,100.

The personal exemption for 2014 will be $3,950.

What is the possibility of Congress changing the tax rates?

Congress could make a new law at any time that changes tax rates. Last year, there was a big debate that centered around the extension of certain tax cuts. The government made the decision to break the cycle in which the tax rates required a vote every year, so for once, we might be able to get through the next few months without a debate about tax rates. Given Congress’s recent proclivity for negotiating like terrorists with hostages rather than sensible adults who were elected as representatives of the citizens of this country, there’s no perfect prediction of what might occur over the next few months.

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For most citizens of the United States, tax season is over. There’s no longer a need to run around gathering documents. You’ll stop seeing television commercials for TurboTax and H&R Block in which each insinuates the other is a deficient company. You can stop thinking about government’s wasteful spending and income redistribution — which always seems to benefit someone other than you — for a year.

Unless, like me, you filed for an extension.

Did you or will you be receiving a tax refund this year? If you received a refund, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are being subsidized by other taxpayers; it more often signifies the fact that you’ve paid more than you owe to the government. How very generous of you to offer the government an interest-free loan; you can be sure that if you owed the government money, by not settling your tax bill in full for example, they’ll charge you interest.

The debate over whether it’s better to receive a refund or owe the government a balance in April is hotly contested, with proponents of receiving a refund enjoying the “forced savings” throughout the year. I don’t think that’s a great benefit. Exercise some self-control and manage your money for yourself.

Nevertheless, it’s April, and those refunds are coming fast. Getting a check from the government seems to elicit an explosion of glee. Savings isn’t foremost on everyone’s mind. The refund isn’t free money. Unless you’re a lazy employee and manage to get paid for sitting around taking up space in an office, you worked for that money.

Previously, I’ve explored several ways to use your tax refund for fun. Sometimes, a refund can be like a windfall. It’s money you weren’t anticipating — a bonus. Why not throw caution to the wind and go crazy?

Or, if you’re an adult with responsibilities and no flexibility in your budget, you may want to consider more reserved options. These aren’t nearly as fun, but if you’re looking to get to financial independence faster, so you can have more fun spending your money without that nervousness in the back of your mind about the potential consequences to your prospects for wealth, consider the following.

1. Keep your refund in your savings account.

This year, Harris Interactive conducted a study on behalf of the American Institute of CPAs, an organization for accountants. The study involved a survey through telephone calls to a sample of the public, and the results indicate that this year, savings is the number one target for tax refunds. That’s great news, even if it means that Americans are already somewhat insecure with their accumulated savings.

Even though interest rates for even the best savings accounts are annoyingly low, they are important tools for establishing an emergency fund.

A tax refund could go far in insulating a family against a loss of income or a change in career direction.

2. Pay off debt.

While the Harris Interactive survey ranked paying off debt third among the tax refund priorities of Americans, I see debt reduction as tied for first, or at worst, second. Paying off debt will actually have a better financial return at the moment than boosting savings, because chances are good your debt is at a higher interest rate, even after considering any tax benefits like a student interest loan credit or the mortgage interest deduction, than what you can earn in savings.

Use your tax refund to bid adieu to a stubborn student loan. Get your credit card balance to a more manageable level (and resolve never to pay interest on credit card balances again). If you can do so without a penalty, ship some of your newly received cash to your mortgage company as a prepayment, and continue to send your normal payments in the future to remain ahead of schedule.

Putting a tax refund towards debt is simply one of the most responsible uses of money. Your future self will thank you when she arrives at a point of financial independence sooner.

3. Invest for retirement.

Retirement is a valid concern for today’s young worker. The threats to future Social Security benefits are getting attention in the media, and while the media often explain that prudent savings can add to to $1 million for retirement over thirty years, writers and gurus also fail to mention that the present course of inflation will likely render $1 million insufficient for funding the lifestyle that a millionaire might enjoy today. If you’re retiring in twenty, thirty, of forty years, aim higher. Much higher.

Anything you can add to your retirement funds will help you in the long run, assuming you live long enough to reap the benefits. There’s always that risk, as morbid as it sounds. So retirement needs should be carefully balanced with making the most out of the time you have today.

An IRA is an ideal choice for investing a tax refund. You can choose between a traditional IRA and Roth IRA, and the selection depends on your expectations for taxes now and in the future. After depositing your refund into the bank, you can easily transfer the money into a new IRA opened at Vanguard (my recommendation), Fidelity (also a good choice), or any other discount online broker that offers free investing in their own low-cost index mutual funds.

4. Donate your refund to a charitable organization.

Unless you’re considering a potential tax deduction, giving away money is not exactly the quick path to building wealth. But you don’t give to charity just for the tax deduction. Even if you believe that money you give comes back to you in the future, that’s still not why you give. I’m not saying I believe pure altruism actually exists; I think most people give to causes and organizations they care about because helping others provides the giver a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and efficacy.

With an extra $5,000 to spend, you’d likely use it for something with little meaning. Give it to a non-profit organization, and they’d use the money to help in disaster relief, buy materials for building houses for the poor, or supply a school with musical instruments or other learning materials. You could fund a small scholarship.

5. Invest in yourself.

Your personal human capital doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The focus is on net worth so much that people may often forget that today’s numbers aren’t the full measure of a man or woman. Yes, by improving your human capital also means a higher potential for lifetime earnings, but being well-rounded is its own reward.

To invest in yourself, you can use some of your tax refund to enroll in for-credit classes that get your closer to another degree. You should also consider courses that, while not destined for a degree, improve your skills in your current career or open a path towards a new career.

If you have the capacity to be successful with a business on the side, in addition to your day job, your tax refund may be the capital you need to get started or to get ahead. Investing in your own business shows that you are serious about taking the nest steps towards building a career for yourself, with the goal of independence from corporate careers.

If you have your financial priorities squared away, are in no danger of going over your budget, and are already cruising towards financial independence, it’s understandable to forgo these responsible choices in favor of something more fun. Buying yourself presents, like vacations or improvements to your house or car, can give you satisfaction that may not come for a while if you’re investing for your retirement instead. There’s a right time and a wrong time to spend money frivolously, even taking into consideration the importance of treating yourself and your family.

It’s been a long time since I’ve received a real tax refund. I do try to slightly overpay on my estimated taxes, but that small refund is no consolation to me when I sign much larger checks for the government’s benefit.

Are you receiving a tax refund this year? What do you plan to do with the money?

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